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Rejecting the God(s) of the Triumphant: Texts of Terror and the Ideology of Conquest

Some recent conversations and readings have caused me to revisit my thinking on portrayals of divine violence within the biblical texts.  Specifically, I have been asking myself: what exactly am I to make of the fact that the bible often portrays God as violent or as commanding or approving of massive acts of death-dealing destruction?
Now the reason why these texts strike me as troubling isn’t necessarily because they portray God as violent, unattractive, and evil but because this portrayal of God seems inconsistent with the God portrayed throughout most of the biblical narrative.  If this portrayal of a violent God was consistent with the rest of the bible, then it would be easy to simply close the book, and move on to better things.  However, as far as I can tell, the bible primarily presents God as the God of life, of creation, of healing, of forgiveness, of the oppressed, and so on.  Therefore, those who are drawn to this (dominant) portrayal of God are left to struggle with the texts of terror.
When approaching these texts, it is important to remember that the authors are shaped by the contexts and ideologies that they inhabit as they write.  Indeed, what I think we see reflected in these texts is the extra-biblical ideology of conquest as it is proclaimed by the triumphant or by the oppressed who unconsciously adopt the ideology of the oppressors.
Thus, for example, in the Old Testament narratives related to the conquest of Canaan, we encounter history as it is written by the triumphant.  Not surprisingly, as with most stories of conquest, we read of how the victors experienced divine assistance and, even at their most vicious (say when they were slaughtering women, children, and animals) they are portrayed as simply ‘following [God’s] orders’.  Of course, such narratives are strikingly similar to the stories told by other Powers, from contemporary American narratives about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to most of the parties involved in the two world wars, to empires as diverse as the Babylonians, the Ottomans, the British, and so on.  Therefore, during the moments of history when the ancient Hebrews (briefly) enjoyed some relative military success, it is not surprising to see them relating history through lenses tinted by triumph.
Stated bluntly, this is what war criminals tell themselves (and end up believing) in order to sleep with clean consciences — which also means that the overcoding involved in these stories tends to be bullshit… regardless of whether or not they come to us from Obama or the Deuteronomist.  So, truth be told, I just don’t buy it.  I don’t buy it that God has called America to be the policeman of the world, and I don’t buy it that God called Israel (past or present!) to slaughter the people who live in the land they wish to inhabit.  The day God starts telling you to slaughter innocents, is the day that you should start looking for a new God… because the odds are the voice you are hearing isn’t God at all.
This way of thinking covers a good deal of the violence described in the Old Testament, but it still does not explain references to divine violence in the New Testament (notably references to the damnation and torment of those who are perceived of as enemies of God and God’s people), which was written, not by the triumphant, but by members of an oppressed and subversive minority.  In these instances, I think it is best that we understand references to divine violence to be an expression of one of the ways in which oppressed people end up internalizing the ideologies of their own oppressors.  This is, after all, a common thing to see — rather than finding a third way of being and acting, oppressed people often fall victim to the propaganda and the spectacle imposed by the oppressors, but simply wish that the tables were turned.  Of course, much of what attracts me about the biblical narrative is the struggle to discover, express, and act out a third way (the Way of Jesus Christ) but it is not surprising to discover that those who follow this way do so imperfectly and — despite their best efforts — still end up enmeshed in some of the violence of their times.  The same is true of any of us.
In sum, I believe that there are various and competing traditions and voices found within the biblical narrative.  Some of these traditions are more prominent and carry greater weight than others.  It is my opinion that the traditions that speak of God as the God of life, creation, healing, liberation, forgiveness and of the oppressed, outweigh the traditions that speak of God as the God of death, conquest, destruction, and of the triumphant.  Therefore, I reject such portrayals of God.  These texts of terror just might be Christianity’s ‘Satanic verses’.

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  1. I have been discussing a similar idea with my friend Sean from PrimalSubversion (see his post
    What do you think of the passages which give rational to violence that YHWH instructed and aided? Texts such as Leviticus 18.24-28, Deuteronomy 9.4-5 and 20.16-18. Could these help us establish a framework for understanding the ‘texts of terror’, by placing them within the mission of God as the OT and NT presents it?

  2. I heard a paper recently, where the person was struggling with this issue, particularly in relation to a passage in Ezekiel. She concluded that the only way Christians can appropriately “use” or approach such difficult passages is by bringing them into conversation with other parts of Scripture – such as Abraham’s appeals for God to be merciful. So when we read about God punishing the Jews, we are not to simply agree “they deserved it for disobeying the covenant”, but to be mortified, and to remind God of his grace and appeal for him not to destroy his own creation. I found this helpful.

  3. Okay, so…What are we to do with texts in which the ancient Israelites blamed themselves–their collective sinfulness–for the tragedies which befell them?
    Many of these texts portray God as a God of the poor, the weak, the little ones, etc. They blame Israel’s suffering on her sinful treatment of these people.
    And yet, when Israel as a nation is poor and weak, when it seems that God has abandoned her, Israel blames herself.

  4. I appreciate this post dan. For me, the scriptural bar is the life narrative of Jesus; I don’t think there is really any “God of life” or “God of death”, but only a God of this or that story. The story of Jesus is where I find a picture of God which trumps other scriptural pictures of God. As you may or may not agree, “life” and “death” are not stand alone categories, but require some narrative enfleshing to make them “able.”
    also, I totally agree with your assessment of OT triumphant history.
    Joel Mason

  5. Although I appreciate the serious problems you’re seeking to address here, problems for which I, as a Mennonite, certainly do not have any obvious nor ‘omnipotent’ solutions, I must play devil’s advocate.
    How does this interpretive approach – “references to divine violence [are] an expression of one of the ways in which oppressed people end up internalizing the ideologies of their own oppressors” – avoid simply being your personal, a priori decisions about which voices of the oppressed are legitimate and which are reflections of what you know their oppressors’ ideologies to be? In other words, how is this not ultimately my usual method of doing theology, the ‘me’ method illustrated here: .
    You may rightly object that there’s no way out of my theology being all about me, and you’d be mostly right, but isn’t the room left by that ‘mostly’ the reason why we even bother to enter the hermeneutical circle, practice the intellectual virtues, and try to escape our historical conditioning? Recently you mentioned submitting our understanding of violence to the voices of the oppressed – isn’t that appropriate here? Or do contemporary oppressed people have stockholm syndrome, too?

  6. Really great post. I am coming to the end of about two years or so of really struggling with the Canon, and honestly, I have ended in about the same place. I guess I gauge it is about the end because I’m feeling like I can pick up the Bible again with some peace, but I must admit, it is a leery peace. It was hard to appropriate though dialogical critique the HB’s “satanic verses,” but trying to understand the variances of divine violence in the NT, especially out of the mouth of Jesus, was nearly a struggle usque ad mortem.
    I would love to hear your answer to Tia’s question, but for my part, Tia, I must say, I think that Israel’s understanding of her punishment came (from an historical-critical perspective) concurrently with her emergence as monotheistic post-Exile. It is not perhaps really telling of how God did punish Israel (i.e. by smashing the heads of her infants against rocks, etc), but is the outworking of a struggle that Israel had with her own henotheistic understanding of election.
    Michael, I think that poser (I don’t know his name, sorry!) is displaying the types of values you are talking about. He is not simply making “personal, a priori decision” (I think my key word is simply) because he has stated that there is more than one voice of the oppressed within the canonical text. So he is submitting to others. Furthermore, I think that the stories that are attested to within our canonical tradition cry out that some voices must be chastised or the like. So the story (or stories) itself, because it paints a certain family of pictures of God, demands a grammar from us that causes the community to critique certain voices – both the triumphant and the oppressed. It is not simply personal, a priori, because the voices and texts and stories are, to some extent, something outside us. But our only access to them, I think, is through our own cultural-linguistic frameworks – and that includes our moral/theological compasses. As we hear different voices tell us different things, we must differentiate.
    The other side of “mostly” we do together, without objective standard, without immovable foundation, without certainty. The “my” can be overcome by the “our.”

  7. Alex,
    I agree with your sentiments entirely. But if I wanted to make it clear how offensive Dan’s hermeneutic could be, I’d say something like this:
    “Alex, the reason you like Dan’s solution to the texts of terror is not because you’re a sensitive, authentic follower of Jesus, but simply because your thought-world is so determined by North American liberal democracy that even when you think you’re rejecting it you’re subconsciously adopting its ideology, including the liberal ‘pacifism’ that helps disguise the inherent violence of our age’s ‘enlightened’ mechanisms of governance and punishment by pretending to have left behind the more obvious violence of the ‘brutish’ past. (For examples, see Foucault’s Discipline & Punish.) In short, you have Stockholm Syndrome.”
    It hurts, doesn’t it? Now, I don’t believe that. But neither do I believe we can, from our Enlightened 21st Century Perspective, write off any other past voices in this manner.
    Yet, as you rightly point out, what we can and should do is pay attention to the diverse and disparate voices in the canon, and it is on that basis that I feel comfortable questioning the actions of figures like Joseph, Esther, and Ezra, because the canon already does so. Of course, we appreciate them more because we can hear contemporary voices of both oppressors and victim, and that is definitely to be welcomed (and repented of.) That’s hermeneutics: letting our horizon question the horizon of the text and vice versa.
    Imposing a one-size-fits-all narrative of ideology and internalization on any text is more power broking than hermeneutics, which is exactly what we’re trying to resist, no?

  8. Just to clarify, I agree with the conclusion that we can and should reject a divine imprimatur for our violence past or present. But I cannot stomach Dan’s proposed ‘method’ to get there.


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